When Kathleen McDonald was ten, her mother told her a bizarre story. Her father wasn’t her father, and more intriguing still, she had a secret older sister who had been given up for adoption. She was confused by the story and a little excited.
But the next day her mother retracted the tale, explaining that she had just made it up as a story. Kathleen accepted this explanation. But a seed of truth had been planted.
The reality was that Kathleen had been conceived out of wedlock, which was still big deal in the 1960s. Her mother, who had already given one child away, married swiftly, but not to the man who’d got her pregnant.
Telling the story now, Kathleen says that her mother’s marriage was doomed to fail.
“They divorced before my first birthday. I sometimes wonder if my mum went through with the marriage so as to avoid being forced to give up another child,” she explains.
For the first six years of her life Kathleen was cared for by her maternal grandmother, and the couple she believed were her paternal grandparents. Then, her mother, who had been living and working interstate returned with a new husband.
“I thought of this man as my father, although old enough to realise that he was not technically so. We were close though, and he even adopted me so that I could legally bear his name,” says Kathleen.
Then one night Kathleen’s mother finally let the cat out of the bag. “She was in a drunken rage, and I had done some teenage thing to bring down her wrath,” recalls Kathleen.
“She let it all out and there was no taking it back this time. I went to my maternal grandmother and she confirmed the whole story to me.”
The aftermath of the revelation was hard for Kathleen.
“I felt like the earth had shifted under me. I felt like I didn’t belong to anyone anymore, all the family relationships that I thought I had were revealed as lies.
“I felt stupid and naive and totally duped. I felt like everyone felt sorry for me; ‘Poor Kathleen’ she doesn’t even know the truth’,” she says.
Now she is older and has children of her own Kathleen says that she isn’t angry or hurt anymore. However, after discovering her mother’s secret she spent many years feeling betrayed.
Psychologist Annie Gurton says that trust is essential in families and that in situations such as Kathleen’s where trust is broken, serious damage can be done.
“When we trust we feel safe, and when we cannot trust we feel fundamentally anxious. When we realise that we have been lied to, consistently and over a prolonged period, we feel betrayed at a deep, deep level,” she explains.
Gurton notes that when a person discovers they have been kept out of a big secret they are likely to feel confused about their identity.
“Our first conscious thoughts when we find out the truth are, 'How could the person I depend on and trust do this to me?' and 'What else is untrue?' Deep down there is a sense of uncertainty, insecurity and questioning of our most basic concepts and assumptions,” she explains.
Of course, wherever there is a secret, there will be everyday stresses and strains that are visible to everybody. Gurton notes that it is these everyday stresses and strains that provide clues to the rest of the family.
“Often when a truth finally emerges, the victim will say that ‘they always knew’. When there is a deep secret the victim will intuitively sense that something is wrong. There is a deep knowing of the truth even if it remains unspoken.
“Somehow, as the saying goes, ‘the truth will out’, and when that happens the impact can be catastrophic,” she says.
According to Gurton, the best way to move on after discovering a family secret is to forgive. “Try to understand and forgive, and try and move forward without bitterness, malice or anger,” she says.
Trish Robinson was able to forgive her parents when she found out that they had been keeping a secret from her. However, finding out that she was a ‘love child’ and conceived in an extra-marital affair forever changed the way she saw marriage.
“My dad was married to someone else when he met my mum, and I was the product of his affair,” she says.
Trish’s father left his wife and children and later married her mum. But during her childhood she had no idea, until she found some old photos at her grandmother’s house.
“I saw a photo of my dad in a pile of old photos, he was next to a bride who wasn't my mum. I asked my Nan who it was in the photo and she said ‘no one’ and put it at the bottom of the pile. But I recognised it was my father as a younger man. I asked Nan if it was my father and she said ‘no’. I knew then there was something she was hiding,” recalls Trish.
Although her parents were very much in love, finding out about their affair gave her a lifelong unease around marriage.
“I have chosen to never get married even though I have been asked. I don't even like going to weddings. It all feels like we are all pretending together that this marriage is going to be different than almost all the others,” she says.
Although Trish still feels uncomfortable about being lied to about the circumstances of her birth, she says that she likes knowing she was conceived during good sex.
“I kind of believe there is something special about babies born from good sex, it gives them an X-factor we can't quite put our finger on.“I recently found out there is no father names on my great grandmothers birth certificate. It made me smile,” says Trish.
“My great granny was a love child too.”
*Names have been changed